Generating Ideas: The theory of creativity

PRWeek and the Mental Health Foundation teamed up to test eight principles for promoting creativity. Suzy Bashford reports.

There are many theories about the conditions under which creativity flourishes. So PRWeek decided to put a few of them to the test.

We rounded up a group of comms professionals to test eight of the most popular techniques designed to get their creative juices flowing. Just:: Health PR was appointed to facilitate the session.

In order to make our experience more authentic, we teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation's head of marketing Laura Parker to organise an idea-storming session around a live brief.

This month, the charity is launching the second stage of its 'mindfulness' media campaign, which will direct people to bemindful.co.uk.

The group was asked to come up with ideas to help make 'mindfulness' (a method for people to control their thinking and feelings) into a social movement.

1. Ideas can come from anyone, from the most junior person in an agency to the most senior and from any discipline or specialist sector.

The test: The group was cherry-picked to ensure a good balance of media specialists, and those with and without knowledge of the mental health field:

Laura Parker Head of marketing, Mental Health Foundation.

Louise Berktay Comms manager, Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust.

Claire Grindal Senior account director, public and voluntary sector, Munro & Forster; formerly head of media at charity MIND.

Dr Wolfgang Seidl Executive director, employee wellbeing company The Validium Group

John V Willshire Chief innovation officer at PHD Network, a media agency renowned for its pioneering approach.

Willard Foxton Account manager, Kelso Consulting.

Pauline Kent Director, health PR specialist Woolley Pau PR.

Katrina Power Account director, Midas PR.

Claire Merrick Founder of start-up OutShine Innovation and formerly global innovation manager at BP.

The verdict: All participants felt the group gelled. Some commented on the usefulness of 'ice breakers' in breaking down social barriers. Other PROs welcomed the wide range of experience and expertise. The main drawback was the size of the group, which some felt was too large.

2. Good facilitators should not be the focus of the session, but operate in the background, encouraging collaboration. They should also be adept at pulling out those ideas that relate best to the brief.

The test: Jennie Talman, MD of Just:: Health PR, and her team were chosen to run the session because they listened carefully to what the client wanted and could put the group at ease. The agency has just renovated its building to create state-of-the-art 'ideas-storming' facilities. To kick off, the facilitators used a technique called 'clues, hunches and bundling', which involved sticking enormous post-it notes on the walls outlining key insights about mindfulness. They also clearly set out the criteria for success at the start of the session.

The verdict: Participants rated the facilitators' performances highly, commenting on their sense of fun, approachability, organisational skills, quiet confidence and ability to, as Foxton says, 'wind us up and let us go, without interfering in the idea generation process'. He adds that working with them has changed the way he plans to conduct ideas storms in future. The only criticism was that, in the rush to keep on schedule, some of the ideas slipped through the net.

3. Environment and food and drink can affect mood and creativity.

The test: London was scoured for a relaxed venue that could enhance creativity. The chosen venue was Home Sweet Home, just off Oxford Street, a creative space that is homely, kitsch and full of funky objects. The owner of catering brand Let's Graze Reynolds, a former ad man, was briefed to create 'inspiring' nibbles and drinks. He provided healthy wraps and salads.

The verdict: The majority of participants agreed that choice of venue affected their creativity and that Home Sweet Home made them feel more relaxed.

'You need to give yourself space away from your usual workplace,' says Kent. 'One of the best ideas storms I've been to was in a room at the Tate Modern. We all spent an hour gazing at art and then idea-generated.' The one drawback cited was the fact it would have been good to have some outdoor space. Most participants said the food and drink was important. They welcomed the healthy focus of the nibbles.

4. Time, day and duration can have an effect on the amount and the quality of ideas generated.

The test: A Friday afternoon was chosen as this is traditionally the most relaxed time of the week, with the session starting at 1.30pm and finishing at 5pm.

The verdict: Participants were divided. Some felt a Friday afternoon to be advantageous owing to people having let go of the stresses of the week and being in a more creative mind frame. Others felt Fridays were less preferable as people have started to switch off and are tired.

5. Use other campaigns that have achieved the objectives you are after as props in stimulating relevant ideas.

The test: The group was split into two. Each group watched a short film on a campaign that had successfully instigated a social movement. The team then analysed how the brand had done this, and how the foundation could trigger a similar revolution around mindfulness.

The verdict: While all participants thought this technique was effective in triggering ideas, some aired concerns that it led participants down a 'copy cat' route. However, as Merrick says, 'looking at alternatives and applying the thinking to your problem can help problem solving'.

6. Getting in touch with your inner child gives you a new perspective and fresh ideas.

The test: Just: Health PR transformed one room in the venue into a kid's party. One of the facilitators dressed up as a wizard and then every 'kid' had to suggest a present for a seven-year-old, explaining why they had chosen it. This was then used as a springboard to think about the brief.

For example, one participant chose a skipping rope because his sister and all her friends have one. The group took these attributes and thought about how they could encourage the public to try out mindfulness, persuaded by the fact lots of other people were enjoying the experience.

The verdict: The kid's party won on the novelty factor stakes, but most queried its value in generating ideas. Being playful is widely acknowledged to aid creativity, but Grindal argues 'the "inner child" isn't relevant unless you're trying to target children'. Others commented that it seemed too contrived.

7. Breaking the rules leads to unique ideas.

The test: The facilitators asked the group to think of ways to engage the media in a story, such as 'make it newsworthy' or 'make it controversial'. Then they had to consider what the opposite of this approach might be. So, the opposite of 'use a case study' might be to tell the journalist that you have a 'mystery spokesperson'. Three other mini-techniques were applied to the idea: 'blowing it up', 'breaking it down' and 'making it barmy'. This train of thought led the group to come up with the idea that the foundation could involve the media in a giant game of 'Guess Who'.

The verdict: This was the most popular technique, with all believing that it boosted idea generation. Participants found it 'liberating', 'enjoyable', 'challenging' and 'inspiring'. It triggered off-the-wall thinking.

8. A good ideas session should end up by identifying the best ideas that most closely fit the brief.

The test: Facilitators handed out three stickers to each participant and asked them to 'vote on the goat'. Each cluster of ideas had a picture of a goat next to it and participants stuck stickers next to their favourites.

The top ideas were then analysed via 'Hokey Spokey': this meant plotting a point on an axis depending on the extent to which the idea had satisfied the criteria. Then all the 'spokes' were joined and it became visually obvious where the idea needed some more work.

The verdict: This was a good way to round up the session and take stock. It also showed Parker that while the session had generated a few seeds of good ideas, she needed to develop some aspects of the best concepts. 'Initially I was expecting a "big idea", but the group ended up generating so many ideas that we have several great initial concepts,' she reports.

She is convinced taking this structured approach and using specific idea generation techniques led to more, and better, ideas: 'My only improvement would be that I would make a future session longer, or have a second-tier session to refine concepts from the first session.'

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